What was 1995 in golf?
The mind flashes back to Ben Crenshaw and Corey Pavin on the
72nd holes at Augusta and Shinnecock Hills, respectively, each
doubled over with his head bowed from the force of the emotional
tidal waves that struck them at the Masters and the U.S. Open.
An accompanying image is of Costantino Rocca, who let the
psychological tsunami resulting from his 65-foot birdie putt at
the 72nd hole at St. Andrews pitch him face first into the
Valley of Sin. Then there's a montage that includes the numbed
expressions of America's Ryder Cup team sitting next to the 18th
green at Oak Hill, Mark McCumber putting his thumb and
forefinger on the 7th green at Firestone and Ben Wright getting
caught in a wringer.
But unless you were one of the rare citizens who could actually
get the Golf Channel, much of the rest of the season has become
a blur. A few will remember that it started with a temporarily
healthy Fred Couples winning two tournaments overseas in
January, while Peter Jacobsen took the first two PGA Tour events
in February. On the LPGA tour, long hitters Laura Davies and
Michelle McGann each scored two victories, and Betsy King
finally got her 30th career win to get into the most exclusive
Hall of Fame in sports. Before the season ended, Lee Janzen had
won his third tournament of the year, and Colin Montgomerie, who
lost the PGA Championship in sudden death to Steve Elkington,
had taken his third straight European Order of Merit. The
results rolled in with metronomic regularity, the consequence of
a worldwide schedule crammed full. By the time the Silly Season
got cranked up in November, Billy Mayfair's two wins and
$1,543,192 in earnings seemed as forgettable as the golf played
by the most prominent player of the previous two years, Nick
Upon reflection, 1995 was rich with extraordinary achievements
by players who already have become the focal points of 1996.
Those who stepped up the tallest were Greg Norman, who proved
himself golf's most unrelenting force; Pavin, John Daly, Annika
Sorenstam and Tiger Woods, all of whom carved their names deeper
into history; and Curtis Strange, who demonstrated the most
difficult, yet most basic, way to be a champion.
Norman was everywhere in 1995. He began the year as the point
man in a bungled attempt to establish a World Tour and ended it
as the unyielding accuser of McCumber, who Norman insists
illegally flattened a spike mark along his putting line at the
World Series of Golf. It was in between those two episodes that
the Shark made his most indelible mark. On the field of battle
Norman was clearly the outstanding male player of the year.
In just 16 PGA Tour events, Norman had three victories--his most
ever in 13 seasons on the U.S. Tour--and finished out of the top
20 only once. For those who say that Norman has not won enough
to be considered an important player, his 15 career victories on
the PGA Tour are more than any exempt player under the age of 50
except Tom Watson, Tom Kite, Lanny Wadkins, Hubert Green,
Crenshaw and Strange, all of whom have played the Tour longer.
This season Norman earned $1,654,959 in official money, a
record, and passed Kite in alltime earnings, with $9,592,829.
His stroke average of 69.06 was more than half a stroke better
than next-best Elkington's. He proved he is more consistent in
all aspects of his game, and as his victories at Memorial,
Hartford and the World Series showed, he is able to win even
when he isn't hitting on all cylinders. It was a season that
lent credence to the notion that at 40, the man who did not take
up golf seriously until he was 17 still has his best years ahead
It was by no means a perfect year. At Augusta, where he tied for
third, and at Shinnecock, where he was second by two strokes,
Norman provided more ammunition to those who say he still lacks
the sophisticated skills and judgment needed to win majors. But
by the sheer weight of his record, and the persistence with
which he has striven to improve, Norman has finally gained the
overwhelming respect of his peers. Many of them once suspected
him of being largely a marketing creation who was suspect down
the stretch, but Norman has proved to be far more than a pretty
boy. He endured a difficult swing transition, trained
ferociously to make himself one of the fittest players in the
game and rebounded from devastating defeats with his spirit
intact. "There were a lot of questions about Greg, particularly
his ability to finish," said Strange. "But there's no way you
can't respect what he's achieved, and I think he will continue
to get better."
Yet as the year ended, there was an unsettling air about Norman.
He and Butch Harmon, the architect of the flatter, more
rotational swing that in 1993 was the key to Norman's revival
from a two-year slump, may be parting company. Having left IMG
two years ago, Norman is now regularly accompanied by his
business manager, Frank Williams, who encouraged Norman to push
for the World Tour. His fellow competitors note that Norman has
stopped being an agreeable playing partner and that off the
course he generally seems rushed and tense. Norman's strained
relationship with his peers is evident as he speaks about his
hope that they vote him PGA Tour Player of the Year for the
first time. "But I don't expect to get it," he said. "I don't
think these guys will vote for me."
While Norman engenders a wide spectrum of opinions, Pavin's
performance in 1995 leaves little room for ambivalence. He is
universally regarded as the best pressure player in the game.
Pavin has been gaining this reputation gradually over the years.
The mitigating factor was his inability to win in the most
pressure-packed events of all, the majors. But when Pavin pulled
off a flawless final round of 68 at Shinnecock, outmanaging a
bunch at the top that included Norman and coming up with his
epic four-wood from 228 uphill yards on the 72nd for the perfect
closer, he officially became golf's Mr. Clutch.
Pavin added to his aura at the Ryder Cup, where he was a quietly
intense leader by example. First in an alternate shot match
against Nick Faldo and Montgomerie, then in better ball against
Faldo and Bernhard Langer, he rose at the crucial moment. When
he chipped in from the fringe at the 18th hole to win the latter
match, Pavin reacted with a look of eerie calm. "I just enjoyed
watching my teammates react, but I wasn't that excited," said
Pavin. "It was one of those times when I had put all my energy
into playing the actual shot, just the shot I had to hit then
and there, and even after it went in, I was still kind of in a
Pavin's sports psychologist, Dr. Richard Coop, says that the key
to Pavin's ability to succeed under pressure has been learning
how to become "process-oriented rather than result-oriented.
It's a difficult paradox--winning by not thinking about
winning--but Pavin is intelligent enough, and self-aware enough,
to do it."
While intelligence and self-awareness are not qualities
immediately associated with Daly, the young man has won two
major championships and has yet to hit 30. He must know
something. As magical as was Crenshaw's victory at Augusta,
nothing in 1995 was more amazing than Daly's win at St. Andrews.
The supposedly undisciplined, grip-it-and-rip-it loser came to
the most hallowed ground in golf for the oldest tournament in
the world and exhibited patience and poise.
That victory was even more unbelievable than Daly's PGA win at
Crooked Stick, because the Old Course, for all its room off the
tee, requires touch and imagination and an ability to control
the ball close to the ground, skills Daly supposedly lacks. What
St. Andrews proved is that Daly has genius. It also proved that
for all his troubles, Daly is a survivor capable of
demonstrating the right stuff. If ever a player had an excuse to
feel sorry for himself and wilt, it was Daly after Rocca's putt
went in on the 72nd hole. Instead Daly became resolute, hit pure
shots in the playoff and stepped on his opponent's neck. What's
also undeniable is that Daly is a man with deep-seated problems.
His play before the British Open had been spotty. Disturbingly,
it got spottier after his win. Rather than build off his
triumph, Daly resumed his aimless ways, which kept Wadkins from
considering him as a captain's choice for the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
No player in 1995 fed off winning as voraciously as Sorenstam.
The 25-year-old Swede came into the season without a victory on
either the European or LPGA tours, where she was essentially
splitting time. But once Sorenstam got a win in Austria, she
quickly followed with another in Germany. One month later she
got her first in the U.S., the Women's Open. In September,
Sorenstam won the GHP Heartland Classic by 10 strokes, then two
weeks later beat Laura Davies in a playoff in the World
Championship of Women's Golf. When she closed her season by
winning her final tournament of the year, the Australian Masters
in November, Sorenstam had won six times and led both the LPGA
and European tours in prize money, the first time that has ever
Superstar material, Sorenstam possesses a game with no glaring
weaknesses, which she executes with robotic control. And as her
capacity for winning by wide margins attests, she can be a
steamroller. Unlike most of women's golf's recent champions,
Davies included, there seems to be no soft side to her game.
Sorenstam will be the best thing to happen to Davies, who
clearly will need to work harder to keep up. And that could be
one of the best things to happen to the LPGA.
About the only player who rivals Sorenstam for precociousness is
Woods. When the 19-year-old won his second consecutive U.S.
Amateur, even the words of his father, Earl, who predicted that
his son will win 14 major championships before he is through,
didn't seem inappropriate.
What was so impressive about Woods at Newport was his ability to
execute a victory in conditions that played to his weaknesses.
Newport was a short, fast, links-style course in which power was
barely a factor. Woods was forced to forfeit his vast advantage
in length by gearing down to keep his ball in play. At the same
time he faced several cagey veteran amateurs whose unorthodox
styles and maddeningly good short games would frustrate a less
experienced teenager. But Woods didn't break. In USGA
championships dating back to 1992, Woods has a 35-3 record,
further proof that for all his physical abilities, his greatest
asset is what he has inside. With his victory Woods became the
eighth player to win back-to-back Amateurs. He will go for three
in a row at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club in Cornelius, Ore. The year
was also a record fifth straight in which Woods won a USGA title.
Finally, after so much about those who came up big in 1995, we
come to a man who failed big. When Strange bogeyed the final
three holes to lose his Ryder Cup match to Faldo one up, he
became perhaps the most conspicuous loser in the history of the
Strange had been a controversial captain's pick by Wadkins
because he has not won since the 1989 U.S. Open. Wadkins said
that he chose Strange for his toughness, and when Strange
collapsed on Sunday, it was devastating.
Strange thought he would not touch a club for weeks, but when he
began to hear that many regarded him as a broken player who no
longer had the spirit to compete, he not only felt the urge to
play, but he also wanted to play with a vengeance.
"I just decided that when all is said and done, I am a player
and that I love the game," he said. "What happened to me is part
of the game. Sometimes it's wonderful, and sometimes it's cruel.
As a golfer, I have to accept all of it."
The Ryder Cup helped Strange, who has battled various degrees of
burnout since he failed to win a third straight U.S. Open in
1990, to crystallize his identity. He decided that he not only
is a golfer but also a champion, and that what didn't kill him
would make him stronger. In early November, for the first time
in years Strange visited swing coach Jimmy Ballard, the man who
turned around his game in the early '80s but with whom he had
fallen out. "I don't know why it took so long--both stubborn,"
Strange said. "The thing is, within half an hour it came back,
the old feeling. I truly expect to play well next year."
When all is said and done, nobody came up bigger than Curtis
Strange in 1995. And no one has more reason or opportunity to
step up in 1996.